Thursday, December 29, 2011

Unknown Bards by John Jeremiah Sullivan

Rarely did James McKune attempt published aesthetic statements of any kind, but when he did he repeated one word. Writing to JVM Palaver in 1960 about Samuel Charters’s then recent book, The Country Blues, McKune bemoaned the fact that Charters had concentrated on those singers who’d sold the most records, such as Blind Lemon Jefferson and Brownie McGhee, whose respective oeuvres McKune found mediocre and slick. McKune’s letter sputters in the arcane fury of its narcissism of minor difference, but the word he keeps getting stuck on is great. As in “Jefferson made only one record I can call great”(italics McKune’s). Or, “I know twenty men who collect the Negro country blues. All of us have been interested in knowing who the great [his again] country blues singers are not in who sold best.” And later, “I write for those who want a different basis for evaluating blues singers. This basis in their relative greatness.”

When I saw that letter in Marybeth Hamilton’s book (In Search of the Blues), it brought up the memory of being on the phone with Dean Blackwood, John Fahey’s partner at Revenant Records, and hearing him talk about his early discussions with Fahey over the phantoms project. “John and I always felt like there wasn’t enough of a case being made for these folks’ greatness,” he’d said. “You’ve got to have their stuff together to understand the potency of their work.”

Before dismissing as naïve the overheated boosterism of these pronouncements, we might ask whether there’s not a simple technical explanation for the feeling being expressed or left unexpressed in them. I believe that there is and its this:

The narrative of the blues got hijacked by rock ‘n’ roll, which rode a wave of youth consumerism to global domination. Back behind the split, there was something else: a deeper, riper source. Many people who have written about this body of music have noticed it. Robert Palmer called it Deep Blues. We’re talking about strains within strains, sure, but listen to something like Ishman Bracey’s “Woman Woman Blues,” his tattered yet somehow impeccable falsetto when he sings, “She got coal black curly hair.” Songs like that were not made for dancing. Not even for singing along. They were made for listening, for grown-ups. They were chamber compositions. Listen to Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground.” It has no words. It’s hummed by a blind preacher incapable of playing an impure note on the guitar.

We have again to go against our training and suspend anthropological thinking here; it doesn’t serve at these strata. The noble ambition not to be the kind of people who unwittingly fetishize and exoticize black or poor white folk poverty has allowed us to remain the type who don’t stop to ask if the serious treatment of certain folk forms as essentially high – or higher – art forms might have originated with the folks themselves.

If there is a shared weakness in these two books (Elijah Wald’s Escaping The Delta: Robert Johnson and The Invention of The Blues, and Hamilton’s The White Invention of Black Music), it’s that they’re insufficiently on the catch for this pitfall. “No one in the blues world was calling this art,” says Wald. Is that true? Carl Sandburg was including blues lyrics in his anthologies as early as 1927. More to the point, Ethel Waters, one of the citified ‘blues queens” whose lyrics and melodies had a funny way of showing up in those raw and undiluted country-blues recordings, had already been writing self-consciously modernist blues for a few years by then (for instance, “I can’t sleep for dreaming…,” a line of hers I first heard in Crying Sam Collins and took for one of his beautiful manglings, then was humbled to learn had always been intentionally poetic).

Marybeth Hamilton, in her not unsympathetic autopsy of James McKune’s mania, comes dangerously close to suggesting that McKune was the first person to hear Skip James as we hear him, as a profound artist. But Skip James was the first person to hear Skip James in that way.

The anonymous African American people described in Wald’s book, sitting on the floor of a house in Tennessee and weeping while Robert Johnson sang “Come On in My Kitchen”, they were the first people to hear the country blues that way. White men “rediscovered” the blues, fine. We’re talking about the complications of that at last. Let’s not go crazy and say they invented it, or accidentally credit their “visions” with too much power. That would be counterproductive, a final insult even.

from Pulphead Essays by John Jeremiah Sullivan; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, N.Y, 2011

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Poems by Bertolt Brecht

Of the Friendliness of the World

To this windy world of chill distress
You all came in utter nakedness
Cold you lay and destitute of all
Till a woman wrapped you in a shawl.

No one called you, none bade you approach
And you were not fetched by groom and coach .
Strangers were you in this early land
When a man once took you by the hand.

From this windy world of chill distress
You all part in rot and filthiness (yet),
Almost everyone has loved the world
When on him two clods of earth are hurled.

Counter-song to ‘The Friendliness of the World’

So does that mean we’ve got to rest contented
And say ‘That’s how it is and always must be’
And spurn the brimming glass for what’s been emptied
Because we’ve heard it’s better to go thirsty?

So does that mean we’ve got to sit here shivering
Since uninvited guests are not admitted
And wait while those on top go on considering
What pains and joys we are to be permitted?

Better, we think, would be to rise in anger
And never go without the slightest pleasure
And, warding off those who bring pain and hunger
Fix up the world to live in at our leisure.

This Babylonian Confusion

This Babylonian confusion of words
Results from their being the language
Of men who are going down.
That we no longer understand them
Results from the fact that it is no longer
Of any use to understand them.
What use is it to tell the dead
How one might of lived
Better. Don’t try to persuade
The man with rigor mortis
To perceive the world.

Don’t quarrel
With the man behind whom
The gardeners are already waiting
Be patient rather.

The other day I wanted
To tell you cunningly
The story of a wheat speculator in the city of
Chicago. In the middle of what I was saying
My voice suddenly failed me
For I had
Grown aware all at once what an effort
It would cost me to tell
That story to those not yet born
But who will be born and will live
In ages quite different from ours
And, lucky devils, will simply not be able to grasp
What a wheat speculator is
Of the kind we know.

So I began to explain it to them. And mentally
I heard myself speak for seven years
But I met with
Nothing but a silent shaking of heads from all
My unborn listeners.
Then I knew that I was
Telling them about something
That a man cannot understand.

They said to me: You should have changed
Your houses or else your food
Or yourselves. Tell us, why did you not have
A blueprint, if only
In books perhaps of earlier times –
A blueprint of men, either drawn
Or described, for it seems to us
Your motive was quite base
And also quite easy to change. Almost anyone
Could have seen that it was wrong, inhuman, exceptional.
Was there not some such old and
Simple model you could have gone by in your confusion?

I said: Such models existed
But, you see, they were crisscrossed
Five times over with new marks, illegible
The blueprint altered five times to accord
With our degenerate image, so that
In those reports even our forefathers
Resembled none but ourselves.
At this they lost heart and dismissed me
With the nonchalant regrets
Of happy people.

Still, When the Automobile Manufacturer's Eighth Model

When the manufacturer’s eighth model
Is already reposing on the factory scrapheap (R.I.P.)
Peasant carts from Luther’s day
Stand beneath the mossy roof
Ready to travel.

Still, now the Nineveh is over and done with
Its Ethiopian brothers are surely ready to start.
Still new were wheel and carriage
Built for eternity the wooden shafts.


The Ethiopian stands beneath the mossy roof
But who
Travels in it?

The automobile manufacturer’s eighth model
Reposes on top of the scrap iron
But we
Are traveling in the ninth
Thus we have decided
In ever new vehicles – full of flaws
Instantly destructible
Light, fragile
Innumerable –
Henceforward to travel.

The Gordian Knot

When the man from Macedaemon
Had cut through the knot
With his sword, they called him
Of an evening in Gordium, ‘the slave of
His fame’.

For their knot was
One of the wonders of the world
Masterpiece of a man whose brain
(The most intricate in the world) had been able to leave
No memorial behind except these
Twenty cords, intricately twisted together so that they should
One day be undone by the deftest
Hands in the world – the deftest apart from his
Who had tied the knot. Oh, the man
Whose hand had tied it was not
Without plans to undo it, but alas
The span of his life was only long enough
For one thing, the tying.

A second sufficed
To cut it.

Of him who cut it
Many said this was really
The luckiest stroke of his life
The cheapest, and did the least damage.
The unknown man was under no obligation
To answer with his name
For his work, which was akin
To everything godlike
But the chump who destroyed it
Was obliged as though by a higher command
To proclaim his name and show himself to a continent

If that’s what they said in Gordium, I say
That not everything which is difficult is useful
And an answer less often suffices to rid the world of a question
Than a deed.

I’m Not Saying Anything Against Alexander

Timur, I hear, took the trouble to conquer the earth.
I don’t understand him;
With a bit of hard liquor you can forget the earth.
I’m not saying anything against Alexander
I have seen people
Who are remarkable –
Highly deserving of your admiration
For the fact that they
Were alive at all.
Great men generate too much sweat.
In all this I see just a proof
That they couldn’t stand being on their own
And smoking
And drinking
And the like.
And they must be too mean-spirited
To get contentment from
Sitting by a woman.

Difficulty of Governing

Ministers are always telling the people
How difficult it is to govern. Without the ministers
Corn would grow into the ground, not upward.
Not a lump of coal would leave the mine if
The Chancellor weren’t so clever. Without the Minister of
No girl would ever agree to get pregnant. Without the
Minister of War
There’d never be a war. Indeed, whether the sun would rise
In the morning
Without the Fuhrer’s permission
Is very doubtful, and if it did, it would be
In the wrong place.

It’s just as difficult, so they tell us
To run a factory. Without the owner
The walls would fall in and the machines rust, so they say.
Even if a plough could get made somewhere
It would never reach a field without the
Cunning words the factory owner writes the peasants: who
Could otherwise tell them that ploughs exist? And what
Would become of an estate without the landlord? Surely
They’d be sowing rye where they had set the potatoes.

If governing were easy
There’d be no need for such inspired minds as the Fuhrer’s.
If the worker knew how to run his machine and
The peasant could tell his field from a pastryboard
There’d be no need of factory owner or landlord.
It’s only because they are all so stupid
That a few are needed who are so clever.

Or could it be that
Governing is so difficult only
Because swindling and exploitation take some learning?

The Buddha’s Parable of the Burning House

Gautama the Buddha taught
The doctrine of greed’s wheel to which we are bound, and
That we should shed all craving and thus
Undesiring enter the nothingness that he called Nirvana.
Then one day his pupils asked him:
What is it like, this nothingness, Master? Every one of us
Shed all craving, as you advise, but tell us
Whether this nothingness which then we shall enter
Is perhaps like being at one with all creation
When you lie in the water, your body weightless, at noon
Unthinking almost, lazily lie in the water, or drowse
Hardly knowing now that you straighten the blanket
Going down fast – whether this nothingness, then
Is a happy one of this kind, a pleasant nothingness, or
Whether this nothing of yours is mere nothing, cold, senseless
And void.

Long Buddha silent, then said nonchalantly:
There is no answer to your question.
But in the evening, when they had gone
The Buddha still sat under the bread-fruit tree, and to the
To those who had not asked, addressed this parable:

Lately I saw a house. It was burning. The flame
Licked at its roof. I went up close and observed
That there were people still inside. I opened the door and
Out to them that the roof was ablaze, so exhorting them
To leave at once. But those people
Seemed in no hurry. One of them
When the heat was already scorching his eyebrows
Asked me what it was like outside, whether it wasn’t raining
Whether the wind wasn’t blowing perhaps, whether there
Another house for them, and more of this kind. Without answering
I went out again. These people here, I thought
Need to burn to death before they stop asking questions.

Truly, friends
Unless a man feels the ground so hot underfoot that he’d
Exchange it for any other, sooner than stay, to him
I have nothing to say. Thus Gautama the Buddha.
But we too, no longer concerned with the art of submission
Rather with that of not submitting, and putting forward
Various proposals of an earthly nature, and beseeching men
to shake off
Their human tormentors, we too believe that to those
Who in face of the approaching bomber squadrons of Capital
Go on asking too long
How we propose to do this, and how we envisage that
And what will become of their savings and Sunday trousers
After the revolution
We have nothing much to say.

New Ages

A new age does not begin all of a sudden.
My grandfather was already living in the new age
My grandson will probably still be living in the old one.

The new meat is eaten with the old forks.

It was not the first cars
Nor the tanks
It was not the airplanes over the roofs
Nor the bombers.

From the new transmitters came the old stupidities.
Wisdom was passed on from mouth to mouth.

War Has Been Given A Bad Name

I am told that the best people have begun saying
How, from a moral point of view, the Second World War
Fell below the standard of the First. The Wehrmacht
Allegedly deplores the methods by which the SS effected
The extermination of certain peoples. The Ruhr industrialists
Are said to regret the bloody manhunts
Which filled their mines and factories with slave workers. The
So I heard, condemn industry’s demand for slave workers
Likewise their unfair treatment. Even the bishops
Dissociate themselves from this way of waging war; in short
The feeling
Prevails in every quarter that the Nazis did the Fatherland
A lamentably bad turn, and that war
While in itself natural and necessary, has, thanks to the
Unduly uninhibited and positively inhuman
Way in which it was conducted on this occasion, been
Discredited for some time to come.

On Hearing A Mighty Statesman Has Fallen Ill

If the indispensable man frowns
Two empires quake.

If the indispensable man dies
The world looks around like a mother without milk for her
If the indispensable man were to come back a week after his
In the entire country there wouldn’t be a job for him as a

On The Death of A Criminal

He, I hear, has taken his last trip.
Once he’d cooled they laid him on the floor
Of that ‘little cellar without steps’
Then things were no better than before:
That is, one of them has done the trip
Leaving us to deal with several more.

He, I hear, need not concern us further
That’s the finish of his little game
He’s no longer there to plot our murder
But alas the picture’s still the same.
That is, one need not concern us further.
Leaving several more whom I could name.

Song of The Ruined Innocent Folding Linen

What my mother told me
Cannot be true, I’m sure.
She said: when once your sullied
You’ll never again be pure.
That doesn’t applied to linen
And it doesn’t apply to me.
Just dip it in the river
And its clean instantly.

At eleven I was sinful
As any army bride.
In fact at only fourteen
My flesh I mortified.
The linen was greying already
I dipped it in the stream.
In the basket it lies chastely
Just like a maiden’s dream.

Before my first man knew me
I had already fallen.
I stank to heaven, truly
A scarlet Babylon.
Swirled in a gentle curve
The linen in the river
Feels at the touch of the wave:
I’m growing slowly whiter.

For when my first man embraced me
And I embraced him
I felt the wicked urges fly
From my breast and from my womb.
That’s how it is with linen
And it’s how it is with me
The waters rush past swiftly
And all the dirty cries: see!

But when the others came
That was a dismal spring.
They called me wicked names
And I became a wicked thing.
No woman can restore herself
By storing herself away.
If linen lies long on the shelf
On the shelf it will go grey.

Once more there came another
As another year began.
When everything was other, I saw
I was another woman.
Dip it in the river and shake it!
There’s sun and bleach and air!
Use it and let them take it:
It will be fresh as before!

I know: much more can happen
Till there’s nothing to come at last.
It’s only when it’s never been used
That linen has gone to waste.
And once it is brittle
No river can wash it pure.
It will be rinsed away in tatters.
That day will come for sure.


Emerge from the darkness and go
Before us a while
Friendly one, with the light step
Of total certainty, a terror
To the wielders of terror.

You turn your face away. I know
How much you dreaded death, and yet
Even more you dreaded
Life without dignity.

And you would not let the mighty
Get away with it, nor would you
Compromise with the confusers, or ever
Forget dishonor. And over their atrocities
There grew no grass.

Bertolt Brecht; Poems 1913 – 1956; edited by John Willet and Ralph Manheim with the cooperation of Erich Fried; Theatre Arts Books, Routledge, N.Y. 1976, 1987 revised edition.

Friday, December 16, 2011

The Accidental Death of John F. Kennedy

Howard Donahue was a Baltimore ballistics expert who became involved in the JFK investigation when he was called by CBS in the spring of 1967. CBS had constructed a mockup of Dealey Plaza, complete with a little track which pulled a moving target repeatedly through the “Plaza” at 11 miles per hour. CBS was trying to see whether they could find anybody who could hit the target three times in 5.6 seconds. Donahue fired three shots into a three inch circles in 5.2 seconds – and became fascinated with the weapons-and-ballistics aspects of the assassination.

Donahue’s theory, developed over the following twenty years, is that Lee Harvey Oswald did in fact fire two shots at the President that warm November afternoon, with or without the assistance of a vast array of unknown conspirators. He missed with the first shot, although a fragment ricocheted up and hit the President in the neck. His second shot hit Kennedy and Governor John Connally, and his weapon jammed when he attempted a third shot. Unfortunately, a Secret Service man, George Hickey, grabbed a weapon and jumped when he heard the first shot. Hickey’s weapon accidentally fired, and that bullet, from Hickey’s gun, mortally wounded the President.

On first hearing this theory, almost no one believes it could be right. It sounds like just another helium balloon by someone who watched too many Mission: Impossible re-runs as a child. But I have read Donahue’s book Mortal Error carefully, and I have to tell you, if there is a flaw in his argument, I don’t see it.

Donahue is a ballistics expert who has testified in many criminal cases in that role. His ballistics argument include:

1.) The trajectory of the fatal bullet, plotted very carefully based on the entrance and “exit” wounds and the position of Kennedy’s head at the moment, traces a line behind Kennedy, and directly back to the Secret Service care which was following at a distance of about five feet.

2.) The bullet which hit Kennedy in the head disintegrated after impact, which a bullet fired from Oswald’s rifle would not have done, but a bullet fired from an AR-15, carried by Hinkey, would have. “The Carcano round (Oswald’s round) simply did not have the velocity – either rotational, from the rifling of the barrel – or linear, from the gunpowder charge in the skull – to completely shred the thick metal jacket and disintegrate the lead inside upon impact… the startling fact was that the bullet that hit Kennedy’s head ha not behaved like a full metal jacket at all.”

3.) A Carcano round, fired at the distance between Kennedy and Oswald at the moment of the fatal shot (believed to be 261 feet), could not have transmitted as much energy as the fatal round obviously did,.

4.) A .223 bullet, as fired from an AR-15 (Hickey’s gun), creates a little ‘lead snowstorm” in its target, as some of the lead actually melts on impact, then cools again in the tissue. A Carcano round has no similar effect. According to Donahue, exactly such an effect was described to him by Dr. Russell Fisher, a member of the pathologists panel which reviewed the autopsy results in 1968. (The President’s brain disappeared from the national archives shortly after that, making it impossible to confirm this allegation.

5.) The bullet fired by an AR-15 is 5.56 millimeters in diameter. A Carcano round is 6.5 millimeters. The entrance wound in the back of the President’s head was only six millimeters wide – making it seemingly impossible to put a 6.5 millimeter round through the hole.

Donahue’s material is stupefyingly dense but the situation is not as complicated as the language in which it musty be stated. If you can wade through the math until you get an intuitive feel for what the argument is about, you can figure things out. Let’s start with the fact that the fatal shot “entered the rear of the President’s skull and exploded out the right side of his head.” But Oswald was positioned to the right rear of Kennedy, behind him and to the right. That should mean that a shot from Oswald should have exited the left side of Kennedy’s head. Put the book down, take your fingers and point; you’ll see what I mean.

Not only that, but Oswald was way up in the air. The Warren Commission reported that the fatal shot was fired at a downward angle of 16 degrees. But, also according to the Warren report, the fatal bullet, as it exited, blew a hole in Kennedy’s skull; about two inches from the top of his head- above the hairline. A descending bullet should have created and exit wound through Kennedy’s face, about the height of his nose- not through his skull.

The Warren report defenders avoid this quandary by supposing that Kennedy’s head, at the moment of impact, is turned sharply to the left (25 degrees) and tilted sharply forward (40 degrees). Kennedy’s head was turned to the left and tilted forward at the moment of impact- but not nearly enough to explain the anomalous location of the exit wound…On the other hand, the exit wound is exactly where it should be if the fatal bullet was in fact fired from Agent Hickey’s weapon.

Let us deal with the circumstantial observations of the critical seconds:

1) Secret Service agent George Hickey carried an AR-15, which is the civilian version of the M-16, the rifle used by U.S. military ground troops in the Vietnam era. Numerous eyewitness reports state that Hickey had grabbed this weapon and was waving it around within seconds of the first shot.

2) One eyewitness, S.M. Holland, told the Warren Commission interviewer that “just about the same time the President was shot the second time, he (Hickey) jumped up in the seat and was standing up…now I actually thought when they started up, I actually though he was shot, too, because he fell backwards just like he was shot, but it jerked him down when they started off.” Holland also observed that agent Hickey had his weapon in his hands at the moment.

3) Special agent Winston Lawson was in the first car of the motorcade, the car ahead of Kennedy’s on that day. His job was to look steadily backward at the President. Maintaining constant visual contact. In his statement written December 1, 1963, agent Wilson wrote that:
“As the Lead Car was passing under this bridge I heard the first loud, sharp report and in more rapid succession two more sounds like gunfire. I could see persons to the left of the motorcade vehicles running away. I noticed agent Hickey standing in the follow-up car with the automatic weapon and first thought he had fired at someone.”

4) Secret Service Agent Glenn Bennett, seated next top Hickey in the follow-up car, says that when the second shot hit Kennedy he yelled “He’s hit” and reached for the A-15 on the floor of the vehicle- only to realize agent Hickey already had it. Secret Service Agent Emory Roberts, who was in charge of the agents in the follow-up car, reported that just after the shooting he turned and saw Hickey with the rifle, and said “Be careful with that.”

5) While the sound reports from the scene are confusing, many ear-witnesses that that one or more shots had originated from near the President. Austin Miller, watching from the overpass, thought that the shots had come “
from right there in the car.” Royce Skelton, also watching from the overpass, said that he thought the shots came “from around the President’s car.” Mary Elizabeth Woodward, standing just in front of the grassy knoll, described the third shot as “
a horrible ear-shattering noise.”

6) Several individuals who were part of the resident’s motorcade reported smelling gunpowder. Mrs. Earle Cabell, wife of the mayor of Dallas, was riding in an open convertible, four cars behind the death car. She saw the barrel of the rifle projecting through the open window, and immediately after that reported smelling gunpowder. Other people riding in the motorcade also reported the smell of gunpowder, including Tom Dillard, a journalist who was riding in an open car about a block behind the President, and Senator Ralph Yarborough, who was in the care immediately behind Agent Hickey’s

If in fact the only shots fired that afternoon were from Oswald’s rifle, sic stories in the air and inside a building, I have a very difficult time understanding why numerous eyewitnesses would smell gunpowder at ground level and in the path of the presidential limousine.

From there on, what we have in support of the Donahue thesis is a series of after-the-fact observations, culled by Donahue from dozens of Kennedy books.

1) Jim Bishop, in The Day Kennedy Was Shot, reported that Secret Service agent Clint Hill phoned the White House from the hospital. “There’s been an accident,” he reported, apparently overheard by the reporter.

2) According to LBJ: The Way He Was by Frank Cormier, Lyndon Johnson hated to have the Secret Service agents tailgating him, and once, on a hunting trip, threatened to shoot out their tires if they didn’t keep a safe distance. Another time, Johnson told Cormier that “If I ever get killed, it won’t be because of an assassin. It’ll be some Secret Service agent who trips himself up and his gun goes off. They’re worse than trigger-happy Texas sheriffs.”

Donahue’s theory is that nobody intended to kill the President, other than Oswald; it was an accident. It was an accident which happened to occur in such a manner that it was very unclear, to the persons on the scene, what had happened or what was happening. Once this terrible accident had occurred, very few people would have to have knowledge of what was going on. It is quite possible that Agent Hickey himself did not realize what had happened.

And those few people who did, faced with a fait accompli, have a powerful incentive to keep quiet about it. Look at what happens if they talk:

1). Agent Hickey’s life is destroyed

2). All of the agents involved are professionally destroyed.

3).The Secret Service, a government agency with an annual budget of many millions of dollars, is seriously compromised.

There have been other incidents of men being accidentally killed by their bodyguards- indeed, a book argues that this is what happened to the Kingfish, Huey Long. Ross Perot argued during the 1992 presidential campaign that the Secret Service was a vast waste of money, that it was used for political purposes, that it was used to disguise perquisites of office, and that it should be disbanded. There is much truth to this argument; certainly no journalist close to the President would deny that the Secret Service is routinely use to enable the President to “stage” events.

If, in addition to these abuses, it became known that the Secret Service had accidentally shot President Kennedy, do you think the public would still be willing to shell out millions for this “protection”? I’m not an investigative reporter; I’m just a guy who reads a lot of crime books. To me, Mortal Error remains the most persuasive account of the tragedy in Dallas.

Popular Crime; Reflections on the Celebration of Violence by Bill James; Scribner. 2011

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Good Night by Bertolt Brecht

The stable they’d found in spite of all
Was warm, with moss lining the wall
And in chalk was written on the door
That this one was occupied and paid for.
So despite all the night was good
And the hay proved warmer than they thought it would.
Ox and ass were there to see
That everything was as it should be.
Their rack made a table, none too wide
And an ostler brought the couple a fish on the side.
And the fish was first rate, and no one went short
And Mary teased her husband for being so distraught.
For that evening the wind, too, suddenly fell
And became less cold than usual as well.
By night time it was very nearly warm
And the stable was snug and the child full of charm.
Really they could hardly have asked for more
When the Three Kings in person turned up at the door
Mary and Joseph were pleased for sure.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Never Ending War by Doris Lessing

My father was twenty-eight when the war began. He was lucky twice, he said, once when he was sent out of the Trenches because of his bad appendix, thus missing the Battle of the Somme when all his company was killed, and then, having a shell land on his leg a couple of weeks before Passchendaele, when, again, no one was left of his company.

He was very ill, not only because of his amputated leg, but because he was suffering from what was then called shell shock. He was in fact depressed, the real depression which was like - so he said - being inside a cold, dark room with no way out, and where no one could come in and help him. The ‘nice doctor man’ he was sent to said he had to stick it out, there was nothing medicine could do for him, but the anguish would pass. The ‘horrible things’ that my father’s mind was assailed by were not as uncommon as he seemed to think: horrible things were on everybody’s mind but the war had made them worse, that was all. But my father remembered and spoke often about the soldiers who, ‘shell-shocked’ or unable to get themselves out of their mud holes to face the enemy, might be shot for cowardice. ‘It could have been me,’ he might say, all his life. ‘It was just luck it wasn’t.’

My father was not the only soldier never, ever, to forgive his country for what he saw as promises made but betrayed: for these soldiers were many, in Britain, In France, and in Germany, Old Soldiers who kept that bitterness till they died. They were an idealistic and innocent lot, those men: they actually believed it was a war to end war. And my father had been given a white feather in London by women he described as dreadful harridans – and that was when he already had his wooden leg under his trouser, and his ‘shell shock’ making him wonder if it was worth staying alive. He never forgot that white feather, speaking of it as yet another symptom of the world’s ineradicable and inevitable and hopeless insanity.

He had to leave England, for he could not bear England now, and he got his bank to send him out to the Imperial Bank of Persia, to Kermanshah. And there I was born on the 22nd October, 1919.

My mother had a bad time. It was a forceps birth. My face was scarred purple for days. Do I believe this difficult birth scarred me – that is to say, my nature? Who knows. I do know that to be born in the year 1919 when half of Europe was a graveyard, and people were dying in millions all over the world – that was important. How could it not be? Unless you believe that every little human being’s mind is quite separate from every other, separate from the common human mind. An unlikely thing, surely.

The war does not become less important to me as time passes, on the contrary. In 1990, the year I began to write this book, I was in the south of France, in that hilly country behind the Riviera, visiting the delicious little towns and villages which began centuries ago as hill forts, and in every town or village is a war memorial. On one face is a list of the twelve or twenty young men killed in World War One, and this in tiny villages that even now have only half a hundred inhabitants. Usually every one of the young men of the village was killed. All over Europe, in every city, town, and village is a war memorial, with the names of the dead of World War One. On another face of the shaft or obelisk are the two or three names of the dead of World War Two. By 1918, all the healthy young men of Europe, dead.

In 1990 I was in Edinburgh where in a cold, grey castle are kept the lines of books recording the names of the young men from Scotland killed between 1914 and 1918. Hundreds of thousands of names. And then in Glasgow –the same. Then, Liverpool. Records of the slaughter, the First World War. Unlived lives. Unborn children. How thoroughly we have all forgotten the damage that war did Europe, but we are still living with it. Perhaps if ‘The Flower of Europe’ (as they used to be called) had not been killed, and those children and grandchildren had been born, we would not now in Europe be living with such second-rateness, such muddle and incompetence?

Not long ago, in a cinema in Kilburn, they showed Oh What a Lovely War!, that satire on the silliness of World War One. As we came out of the dark into the street, an old woman stood alert and alive at the exit, and she looked hard into every face, impressing herself on every one of us. That film ends with two females stumbling, wandering through acres, miles, of gravestones, war graves, women who never found men to marry and have children with. This old woman, there was no doubt, was one of them, and she wanted us to know. That film expressed her: she was telling us so.

During that trip through the villages of France, then in Scotland and towns in England, were revived in me the raging emotions of my childhood, a protest, an anguish: my parents’. I felt, too, incredulity, but that was a later emotion: how could it have happened? The American Civil War, less than a century before, had shown what the newly invented weapons could do in the way of slaughter, but we had learned nothing from that war. That was the worst of the legacies from the First World War: the thought that if we are a race that cannot learn, what will become of us? But the strongest emotion on that trip was the old darkness of dread and of anguish – my father’s emotion, a very potent draught, no homeopathic dose, but the full dose of adult pain. I wonder now how many of the children brought up in families crippled by war had the same poison running in their veins from before they could even speak.

We are all of us made by war, twisted and warped by war, but we seem to forget it.

A war does not end with the Armistice. In 1919, all over a Europe filled with graves, hung miasmas and miseries, and over the whole world too, because of the flu and its nearly thirty million deaths.

I used to joke that it was the war that had given birth to me, as a defence when weary with the talk about the war that went on – and on –and on. But it was no joke. I used to feel there was something like a dark, grey cloud, like poison gas, over my early childhood. Later I found people who had the same experience. Perhaps it was from that war that I first felt the struggling panicky need to escape, with a nervous aversion to where I have just stood, as if something there might blow up or drag me down by the heel.

Under My Skin; Volume One of My Autobiography to 1949

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov

All my life I have been a poor go-to-sleeper. People in trains, who lay their newspaper aside, fold their silly arms, and immediately, with an offensive familiarity of demeanor, start snoring, amaze me as much as the uninhibited chap who cozily defecates in the presence of a chatty tubber, or participates in huge demonstrations, or joins some union in order to dissolve in it.

Sleep is the most moronic fraternity in the world, with the heaviest dues and the crudest rituals. It is a mental torture I find debasing. The strain and drain of composition often force me, alas, to swallow a strong pill that gives me an hour or two of frightful nightmares or even to accept the comic relief of a midday snooze, the way a senile rake might totter to the nearest euthanasium; but I simply cannot get used to the nightly betrayal of reason, humanity, genius. No matter how great my weariness, the wrench of parting with consciousness is unspeakably repulsive to me.

I loath Somnus, that black-masked headsman binding me to the block; and if in the course of years, with the approach of a far more thorough and still more risible disintegration, which nowanights, I confess, detracts much from the routine terrors of sleep, I have grown to accustomed to my bedtime ordeal as almost to swagger while the familiar ax is coming out of its great velvet-lined double-base case, initially I had no such comfort or defense: I had nothing- except one token light in the potentially refulgent chandelier of Mademoiselle [my Nanny’s] bedroom, whose door, by our family doctor’s decree (I salute you, Dr. Sokolov!), remained slightly ajar. Its vertical line of lambency (which a child’s tears could transform into dazzling rays of compassion) was something I could cling to, since in absolute darkness my head would swim and my mind melt in a travesty of the death struggle.

In 1908, the year selected here, I still shared a nursery withy my brother. The bathroom assigned to Mademoiselle was at the end of a Z-shaped corridor some twenty heartbeats’ distance from my bed, and between dreading her premature return from the bathroom to her lighted bedroom next to our nursery and envying my brother’s regular little wheeze behind the japanned screen separating us, I could never really put my additional time to profit getting to sleep while a chink in the dark still bespoke a speck of myself in nothingness. At lengthy they would come, those inexorable steps, plodding along the passage and causing some fragile glass object, which had been secretly sharing my vigil, to vibrate in dismay on its shelf.

Now she has entered the room. A brisk interchange of light values tells me that the candle on her bed table takes over the job of the ceiling cluster of bulbs, which, having run up with a couple of clicks two additional steps of natural, and then supernatural brightness, clicks off altogether. My line of light is still there, but it has grown old and wan, and flickers whenever Mademoiselle makes her bed creak by moving. For I still hear her. Now it is a silvery rustle spelling “Suchard”, now the trk-trk-trk of a fruit knife cutting the pages of La Revue des Deux Mondes. A period of decline has started: she is reading Bourget. Not one word of his will survive him. Doom is nigh. I am in acute distress, desperately trying to coax sleep, opening my eyes every few seconds to check the faded gleam, and imagining paradise as a place where a sleepless neighbor reads an endless book by the light of an eternal candle.

The inevitable happens: the pince-nez case shuts with a snap, the review shuffles onto the marble of the bed table, and gustily Mademoiselle’s pursed lips blow; the first attempt fails, a groggy flame squirms and ducks; then comes a second lunge, and light collapses. In that pitchy blackness I lose my bearings, my bed seems to be slowly drifting, panic makes me sit up and stare; finally my dark-adapted eyes sift out, among entoptic floaters, certain more precious blurrings that roam in aimless amnesia until, half-remembering, they settle down as the dim folds of window curtains behind which street lights are remotely alive.

How utterly foreign to the troubles of the night were those exciting St. Petersburg mornings when the fierce and tender, damp and dazzling artic spring bundled away broken ice down the sea-bright Neva…!

Monday, October 17, 2011

Miranda's Grandmother by Yoram Kaniuk

The grandmother lived in Sea Bright, New Jersey, in a not-to-large house between the ocean and the river. Whenever the river rose and flooded this strip of land, she’d be evacuated by helicopter. Sea Bright is a summer resort town, but the old lady lived there throughout the year. She was about five nine, a real beauty with violet eyes. Her hair was tinted blue and she had meticulously trained her three poodles to bark like German shepherds. They were small, irritable, and well groomed. She made a habit of spraying them with fine French eau de cologne. She called her house Malgre Tout, which in French means ‘in spite of it all”.

Her last husband, or perhaps it was the one before last, had been a peacetime general who like most of the generals of the time didn’t know how to shoot and had lived with her for a few years in an American camp in the south of France. She was renowned for her escapades in her youth; for instance, a famous duel was fought because of her between a betrayed lover and a cuckholded husband and had been the talk of the town in Philadelphia, once upon a time. She had had several love affairs in her lifetime and had been ostracized by Philadelphia’s high society. And despite the fact that there was a Scots nobleman in her own family tree – Mary Queen of Scot’s right-hand man , in fact – she called the Puritans who fled to America in the seventeenth century “riff-raff” because her own ancestors, when they came, came as noblemen – not to seek refuge but to reign over the land. When Miranda’s mother and aunts got married, the old lady hadn’t been allowed to attend the weddings. She was obliged to hide outside the church windows and peek in.

Her blend of arrogant nobility and ignorance seemed to be a legacy from several generations’ worth of relatives who did nothing but live lives of self-indulgence and alcoholism and tennis and cricket, and then the crash of 1929 pulled the rug out from under them. Her somber cuckholded husband, who owned a distinguished bank, lost everything in a single day, then climbed up his favorite oak tree and shot himself with a gun gripped in white-gloved hands. She kept the ancient pennant of a savage Scottish clan to which she felt kinship in her house in Sea Bright. She had a French companion living with her, an orphaned named Nina, whose huge eyes blinked through the fog in her brain at the woman she worshiped and with whom she lived and of whom she was absolutely terrified. During an angry phone conversation the old woman told Miranda’s mother that it was inconceivable for Miranda to marry a Jew. She said - so Miranda’s mother told me – that she had never met a Jew in her entire life, and Miranda’s mother added that there was no need for me to go out to see her, but I wanted to and someone let us borrow their car so we drove out to see the old lady.

The windshield wipers struggled heroically against a heavy rain, the road was virtually empty, Miranda sat beside me in silence. I thought about Penn, after who the state of Pennsylvania is named – Pennsylvania meaning, more of less, "the woods of Penn” – who was one of her ancestors, likewise one of Theodore Roosevelt’s wives, who was herself the descendent of Jonathan Edwards, who had been an important philosopher and theologian and had been one of the first presidents of Princeton University, and whose grandson Aaron Burr had been Washington’s Vice President, who in turn dueled with and shot dead America’s first Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, who was in fact one of Miranda’s father’s forebears.

I was wearing a suit for the second time in my life. I had borrowed it from Miranda’s younger brother, and I wore a tie at the advice of Miranda’s mother. We were shown in a stood shivering in front of a blazing fireplace. Nina brought a tray with drinks while the old lady lurked upstairs. We could hear the rustling of her dress up there. She was waiting for the right moment to make an entrance. Nina was nervous and stared at me in alarm from the staircase. She apparently knew that she was supposed to ignore me, but the water dripping from me was the same water that was dripping from Miranda. The sound of the ocean intensified outside, becoming a roar and then abating, and at last the old lady started coming down the stairs. Her enormous conceit was perfectly encapsulated in her staged descent down those stairs, in perfect confidence. Even with her blue hair , she looked like an ancient Greek goddess of Vengeance. Even from the topmost stair, she had already done everything she could to show me her scorn. Her every step was angry. Her height was emphasized by a light that shown directly down on her. When she reached the bottom step, she didn’t even glance in my direction; she opened her arms and waited for Miranda to fall into them. She embraced her granddaughter as you might embrace a recently widowed woman.

After this embrace, she simply stared at Nina who was standing and trembling and shooting frightening glances at me and the old lady said aloud: You! – she used a quite correct tone of voice, she must have practiced for hours – you can see how difficult this is for me because of you. Please wait for me in the morning room, and Nina led me into a small room overlooking the ocean. Attractive old paintings. Books bought by the yard. Large windows that seemed to tame the storm. A cabinet and several old armchairs, and a large table with a huge jigsaw puzzle on it. She let me wait for a while and I heard the barking dogs outside the door and then she entered.

She sat with her better side facing me. She asked me what time it was and I told her that it was twelve noon. And she waited a moment. Then she picked up a small silver bell and tinkled it gently. Nina came in carry a tray with a bottle of bourbon, a small pitcher of water, and a glass with ice cubes. The old lady mumbled, poured a little water into the glass that she filled with bourbon, and swirled the glass gently so the ice cubes clinked. I looked at her glass and smiled. The great lady turned towards me and looked at me directly for the first time since we arrived. Something in my appearance disturbed her and I could see the furrows on her forehead deepen uncomfortably. She said, But you people don’t drink, do you? I said, If you people drink them sometimes we drink too. She gestured with her hand and Nina ran out of the room and I could hear weeping. Nina returned with another glass that had apparently been prepared in advance and mixed bourbon with water without asking me how I liked it. Then the old lady, who had apparently forgotten what she’s said before, grumbled that Jews probably drink first thing in the morning. Silence fell because I didn’t respond. She allowed Nina to leave and suddenly rose from her chair, went over to the table with the puzzle, picked up a piece, looked, found a place for it in the appropriate space, looked at me with a sense of triumph, and sat down again.

She waited for the right moment and said: I don’t understand why a Jew wants to force himself into our family. There’s never been a Catholic in the family, let alone a Jew. You’re the first Jew I’ve ever met. She sounded angry and afraid as she said it. Something about me didn’t set well with her expectations. She looked disappointed and drank bourbon. She leveled a glance at me, an almost personal glance I’d say, and said, You don’t look like you should. I told her that perhaps her education as to Jews was lacking and she didn’t respond. She began trying to make it obvious that she wasn’t listening to me. She began naming the presidents and generals and distinguished people and inventors that her family had been blessed with. She said she was proud of her pedigree. That sort of thing couldn’t be bought with sycophancy or new money. She talked about the ear-locks of ultra-Orthodox Jews and their crooked noses and all the thieves and cheats who were my people and I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. She said nothing would help, we’d never be really respectable, that we had no brains or honor or heroes or leaders and now, she said, you’re pushing yourselves where you are not wanted.

She called Jews “Hebrews” and spoke to me only in the second-person plural. However, there was something off about her performance. I was getting a kick out of being referred to as “you people” straight out of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, but at the same time she sounded a little embarrassed and wonderstruck. She kept asking if “you people”, namely me, if we weren’t by any chance French, if we weren’t perhaps Frenchmen impersonating Jews. She didn’t want me to marry her granddaughter, but if I were French, even a Catholic, she would reconsider, and since I looked French to her, But why are you people trying to infiltrate us, pretending to be Jews?

I told her I had to be excused for a moment. She asked me where I thought I was going. I asked her if her bathroom had running water and toilet paper because otherwise I’d have to asked Miranda for some tissues. She tried to get angry, restrained herself, and said of course there was. She was serious. She wasn’t going to rise to my banter. In the bathroom I made an effort not to make a sound. I tried to make sure not a single drop dripped on the floor. With the tips of my fingers I took some of her soft pink toilet paper and then worried that maybe she’d prefer that I use some other paper just in case she or Miranda had to go in eventually and powder their noses.

When I returned she seemed deep in thought. The storm out the windows had intensified and it was raining in sheets. She said that even the Oxford English Dictionary defines the word Jew as thief. You’re all thieves. your Talmud is packed with lies and malice. What would happen if you wanted to drink Miranda’s blood on your Jewish Easter? She looked at me again. She couldn’t understand where the nose from the illustrations in the Dickens books and the newspapers she had seen all her life had disappeared to. I was supposed to have a dirty straggly beard, a crooked nose all the way to my mouth, but I didn’t. At last she said, And where’s that nose? She said, Your Talmud is packed with agitation against Christians. She said that her best friend, Mr. Freedley, who produced the Ziegfeld Follies and was an aristocrat and an honest man, was going to send his Rolls-Royce for her to take her to New York to buy clothes, but not in the New York of the Jews; not the New York where Miranda’s parents lived with the Communists and the Jews. She’s spend a few days with Freedley. He always knew how to make a woman feel like a lady. The last of the great cavaliers in America is courting me and yet here you people come wanting to marry my rare flower, my Miranda.

I sensed her defeat long before she herself sensed it. She was already actually looking at me every time she addressed me. She admitted sadly that she like me. That was why she suddenly told me about Mr. Freedley, because he was supposed to protect her from the truth she saw on my face with her own eyes that wanted to be strong and had now become weak. She no longer spoke so passionately about her hatred of ‘you people”. Hatred was apparently the only intellectual virtue she had been blessed with. She waited for me to say something. I decided not to speak, not yet. I wanted to hear more from her. He asked how I intended to support Miranda and I told her that I was a partner in a factory for frozen falafel. Wanted to help her and told her that I was twenty-eight and divorced, that I was a man of no means, but like all Jews I was sure to get a windfall from one shady business or another. I thought that the frozen falafel would be sufficiently rare and mysterious for her. It was apparent that she was trying to understand what frozen falafel was without revealing her curiosity. She said, You know very well how to cheat the innocent. I saw the contempt oozing out of her eyes, you could see it from miles away. She didn’t want to waste any emotion on me, but she was legitimately concerned. She suffered in silence and drank more bourbon and again forgot to offer me some.

I was surprised at how little she annoyed me. She didn’t get anywhere near the place inside me where I’m an angry Jew, my grandfather’s grandson. I was having fun. I was young. I could see that, unwillingly, and despite her meticulous planning, she was liking me more and more. She went on drinking and her look softened. We stood up and went to the bell room where we joined Miranda and where Nina was nervously waiting for us next to the gong to call us in for lunch.

What the grandmother actually wanted was for me to fall in love with her like all the men in her life. All her dreadful words about the inferior Jewish race, those Jews who trample over decent people and drink all the time and take revenge against good Christians and then run back to their ghettos, about how the Jewish character is irrevocably twisted –despite these words, or perhaps because of them, she wanted to steal me away from her granddaughter. It was all she knew how to do. Throughout her life she had stolen men’s hearts left and right and then stranded her suitors at the starting line; they seldom if ever really caught her. What she had learned in the enormous house on Chestnut Hill in Philadelphia up to the age of seventeen was all she had at her disposal for the rest of her life.. That was it. She’s learned nothing since. The loathing she felt for me was too abstract for it to touch me. I had to leave revenge to luck. I thought, “Luck be a Lady Tonight.”

I wasn’t sufficiently angry to know so early on how to get her back. She fought with a pathetic, ancient enthusiasm, like seltzer that had lost its bubbles. The bourbon also did its part to slow her down. She waited for the gong and Nina rang it and then we went into another room to eat lunch. She looked tired and sleepy as we started eating. Nina served eagerly. After making a huge effort to finish the meal Miranda’s grandmother stood up and went upstairs, saying that she had to rest. Miranda and I went out into the storm and were swallowed up into it.

At dinner, for which she had changed her dress, she drank coffee and wanted to know about my family. There was a seductive tone in her voice now. Her eyes were veiled. After a few more words about the inferior Jewish race, I said I was a descendant of Joseph. She asked who Joseph was. I told her he was Jesus’s father. She stifled a shriek of alarm and said, Yes, yes, and added that due to the distress I was causing her she would have to watch some television. I don’t watch television very much but this evening its important, she said in a bracing voice. I already knew before we came, from Miranda’s mother, that the old lady was addicted to Scrabble and television. I told her Miranda and I would join her. She yielded with disinterested dignity. She went upstairs with restrained enthusiasm. She switched on the television and watched her first program. She stole a glance towards Miranda and suddenly appeared childlike. It was the Jack Benny Show.

She immediately laughed because she remembered what had happened at the end of the show the previous week, and told us all about it. And then she stared at me in contempt. The program gave her strength. Benny was a real person, not like me. Shedding all the Jewish problems she’d been having that day, she said, I’m crazy about him, just wait until he plays the violin. I waited a moment and said, Yes, he really is a wonderful Jew. Her face caved in a kind of a twitch and she wanted to protest, but I could see she was running out of weapons to use against me – though her anger reinvigorated her. She waited for the next program. This one was with Danny Kaye, who was her favorite, so she said, and then on another channel they were showing The Postman Always Rings Twice, with the magnificent John Garfield, as she called him, and then we went on to watch a program about a man she called her genius, Gershwin, and then a short movie with Tony Curtis, something with Lauren Bacall, an old Josef von Sternberg film, and then a late-night conversation with Irving Berlin, as she flicked from channel to channel (though there were only three in those days); hours passed, she gradually wilted like a flower in the hot sun, and I didn’t show her any mercy: a Jewish God had gone into battle this night to destroy the poor woman. It hurt me and it hurt Miranda, but I was caught up in the battle: it wasn’t me who was fighting, the Good Lord spared me that, no, it was Melvyn Douglas and Phil Silvers and Sid Caesar, and she drank one glass after another. She reeled again and again from the impact of my words, “Also a Jew.” Kirk Douglas was beneath the belly, as was Eddie Fisher. She sat defeated and stunned.

And then, late a night, in her defeat, she suddenly looked cheerful- though the bourbon made her cheerfulness somewhat melancholy. I knew what she was waiting for. I had looked through the TV Guide while she waited to ambush me. There was a sad smile on her face. She smoked one cigarette after another, her blue hair speckled with light from the wall lamp, and Miranda fell asleep. Nina also fell asleep. Three of us remained – Miranda’s grandmother, me, and the God of Israel. We sat tensely. Waiting for the last movie of the night. Then, at one o’clock in the morning, hours past the time she was accustomed to retiring, the movie she was waiting for was finally shown: The Scarlet Pimpernel with Leslie Howard. She wanted Leslie Howard on her side, you see, more English than the English, more British than the British, she needed him for one victory over my loathsome race, she needed him in order to vanquish me. She said, Look at the funny Englishman. Charming. Witty. Astute. Elegant. Athletic. He was her lifeline. Her last chance. And she said in a tone saturated with compassion, Now you can’t possibly tell me that he…but I silenced her with a laugh. The blow had to be a painful one. I waited for the right moment, I didn’t want her smile to vanish at once, I wanted t see her blood, and then I drew out the words, Leslie Howard Steiner, that’s right, his mother’s English, but Jewish, and his father’s a Jew from Hungary. And then the old lady burst out laughing too and Nina woke up and rushed out to fetch a glass of cold water. She switched off the television.

I told her the name Leslie comes from Lazlo and that he was a distant relative of my mother’s. He wasn’t really, but I wanted a personal stake in the old woman’s defeat. Now, her deep sorrow was without anger. She stood up, stretched her body and slowly and proudly went to her room. All her beloveds were Jews. One cold night the God of the Jews who hadn’t defeated Hitler managed to defeat Mrs. Anderson Elliott Brooke of Sea Bright, New Jersey. Now she is sitting in Heaven with all her beloved Jews, singing all the songs she loved so much and that were written for her by Jews. With her ancient ignorance, where else could she have gone? God probably treats her like an honored prisoner of war.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Paradox by Maggie Nelson

A paradox is more than the coexistence of opposing propositions or impulses. It signals the possibility – and sometimes the arrival – of a third term into a situation that otherwise appeared to consist of but two opposing forces. Roland Barthes elaborates this third term – which he calls the Neutral - with the utmost beauty and intelligence in his 1977 – 78 series of lectures titled The Neutral . Barthes’s Neutral is that which throws a wrench into any system ( doxa) that demands, often with menacing pressure, that one enters conflicts, produce meaning, takes sides, choose between binary oppositions (i.e. “is cruel/is not!”) that are not of one’s making, and for which one has no appetite.

As it disrupts such demands, the Neutral introduces responses that had heretofore been unthinkable – such as to slip, to drift, to flee, to escape. In a world fixated on the freedom to speak and the demand to be heard, the Neutral proposes “a right to be silent – a possibility of being silent… the right not to listen…to not read the book, to think nothing of it, to be unable to say what I think of it: the right not to desire.” It allows for a practice of gentle aversion: the right to reject the offered choices, to demur, to turn away, to turn one’s attention to rarer and better things.

Preserving the space for such responses has been one of this book’s primary aims. Of equal importance has been making a space for paying close attention, for recognizing and articulating ambivalence, uncertainty, repulsion, and pleasure. I have intended no special claim for art and literature – that is, no grand theory of their value. But I have meant to express throughout a deep appreciation of them as my teachers. For, as Barthes suggests, insofar as certain third terms – however volatile or disturbing – baffle the oppressive forces of reduction, generality, and dogmatism, they deserve to be called sweetness.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

A Sexual Biography of My Wife by Eugene Pota

That title tickled others too.

Pota cherished the giggly warmth with which it was embraced each time he disclosed it in conversation. Dolores howled with laughter. Even Fred, her husband, still writing critically in academic publications and reviewing books there critically too, unbent a bit and chortled audibly from the rear of the car on the drive to the seafood restaurant in Montauk harbor for a standard Sunday lunch in summer.

Nelsa was gleefully curious. And her husband Jordan, glowed and grinned in silent relish at the hundreds of salacious jokes he envisioned unrolling from a bottomless cornucopia of lascivious humor. There were occasional puzzled exceptions, mainly demure women, but only for the first instant of unbelieving surprise. And his wife Polly too, of course. Each time the subject came up, Pota was cheered by the quizzical stares that darted inevitably and almost furtively to Polly’s reddening face, seeking to divine how the idea of such a book was sitting with her. Polly, as foreseen by him now whenever the subject did come up, fidgeted always in the same mute manner of embarrassed discomfort and said nothing and laughed along quietly.

“It’s not about me,” she might argue almost peevishly, but only when directly asked. “At least I don’t think so. And adding with a strained titter: “He doesn’t know enough.”

“It’s a novel, for Christ’s sake, not a history book,” Pota would insist with a jocular absence of sincerity, trying deliberately to appear unconvincing. “Don’t look at Polly. After all, I’ve had three wives, not just her. And frankly, I don’t think I’d want to write a book about any of them, or about me. I don’t think that all our sexual experiences combined are worth a book. I certainly wouldn’t want to spend three or four years about any one of us, or any of you either. I have to invent, you know. I don’t think any real person I ever met has been phenomenal enough for the subject of a whole novel. Do any of you think you are? Let me know about your extraordinary sex life.”

The topic certainly proved a merry one for lively table conversation, calling forth unexpected admissions surprising even to the husbands and wives of those making them in follow-up discussions to questions Pota posed devilishly in the innocent guise of objective research. He had only to touch on masturbation in a mixed group to see women squirm as though compromised and the men perk up waggishly in buccaneering remembrances. Between Pota and Polly the badinage about this sex book had become something of a teasing practical joke.

Judging from the reactions of his small audiences, it did seem to be a sure winner. Edith and Alan asked to see the pages as soon as he’d written them. So did Ken and Ken’s wife, Marissa, who without admitting anything about herself, volunteered to poll her female childhood friends about all their earlier sex events if Pota wanted her to. Just about everyone who knew of it foresaw felicitous prospects. A best-seller of large dimensions- the kind he’s all his professional life secretly pined and pined for.

Certainty, the subject matter suggested by the title encircled an ocean of recognizable material to which every reader in the world of all ages and both sexes could in one way or another relate from some degree of personal experience, conjectural or actual. Even Paul, Pota’s favorite editor, responded with an untypical guffaw when Pota, with solemn mien, first made known the title of his new book to him. And Paul did not laugh easily.

“Are you serious?”

Paul always turned solemn in the presence of a book or an idea he thought much of. Having worked as a conscientious editor all his life, he had suffered too many disappointments not to feel always in dread from the start in anticipation of the jumbled configuration of pitfalls that might lie ahead.

“Yes, I am, I think I am,” said Eugene Pota. “Fred Karl loves the idea too.”

“How does Polly feel about it?”

“Guess,” said Pota. “But she also agree it might be a sure thing for a novel, and she never interferes.”

Tell me,” asked Paul. “If you want to now. What’s the plot, the main story? How does it go?”

“That” said Pota, “is just the problem.” And now Pota was chuckling. “I guess I’ll have to put some work on that part, won’t I? I’ve no idea yet.”

In truth Pota had not yet one distinct idea who or what it was to be about. The title was all he’d been able to get. To an author who took pride in, and had received praise from textual critics for, his keen openings and endings in even his less successful volumes, it was almost horrifying to find himself unable to think of even one good sentence with which to begin.

Exasperating to him also was that the one ideal sentence that did keep popping back relentlessly into his head had already been conceived by the English novelist Julian Barnes for the starting words in his first novel Metroland. The words, Pota recalled with a kind of pouting admiration, were something like these, also by a first person male narrator: “The first time I watch my wife committing adultery was in a large movie theatre at…" and so forth along that course. The clarification that followed was equal to the anticipation evoked: his wife had been a movie actress playing an adulterous role in the film on view.

Could Pota be blessed with a line like that one, he felt, he would be off in a flash. He yearned for one as good, an opening sentence commensurate with the unspoken promises implied in his godsend of a book title. Each time he sat staring in the unremitting futility at the words already printed by him on a sheet of paper purporting to resemble a title page, “A Sexual Biography of My Wife, A New Novel, by Eugene Pota,” the line by Julian Barnes reappeared to haunt him, and he regretted each time as though in mourning that it had not been his own.

“What would Flaubert do if he had a title like that one” Can you imagine Madame Bovary from the point of view of the husband? Do you think we really have to have anything printed inside between the book covers? Paul, couldn’t we just have blank pages?”

“Sure,” said Paul “Or,” he added, with a broad smile, “we can cut production costs and just publish the book jacket. We can forget the pages.”

“Would it sell?”

“It would sell, I think. At the beginning. But not for twenty-five dollars. Maybe for ten cents. Then word of mouth would kill us. What would your author’s royalty on a book jacket price of ten cents?”

“Then I will have to think of something to write, won’t I?”

“Start thinking of something.”

“It shouldn’t be hard. There’s so much sex around.”

“Something good, “ said Paul, who was no longer treating the thought as a practical one requiring immediate decision. “Are you really serious about writing that particular sex book?”

“No, of course not,” admitted Pota. “But let’s not tell any one yet.”

“So? And meanwhile?


Meanwhile, I next put into Pota’s head a dynamic, resonating, taunting opening sentence for something different I knew he’s pounce upon and then would not know what to do with:

“The kid, they say, was born in a manger, but frankly I have my doubts.”

Pota as predicted soon had his doubts too and resumed thinking about Hera again and the humorous character he had started to give her, the handsome homemaker goddess in female rivalry with the saucy Aphrodite, her husband the randy Zeus, the big cheese on Mount Olympus – there might be more opportunity in that one, after all. And then, as he was already thinking about god’s and goddesses, I had him turn aside, unfruitfully as it proved, in a wasteful digression of several weeks, to: God’s Wife.

- Joseph Heller -

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Murder in the Kitchen by Alice B Toklas

Cook-books have always intrigued me and seduced me. When I was still a dilettante in the kitchen they held my attention, even the dull ones, from cover to cover, the way crime and murder stories did Gertrude Stein.

When he first began reading Dashiell Hammett, Gertrude Stein remarked that it was his modern note to have disposed of his victims before the story commenced. Goodness knows how many were required to follow as the result of the first crime. And so it is in the kitchen. Murder and sudden death seems as unnatural there as they should be anywhere else. Food is far too pleasant to combine with horror. All the same, facts, even distasteful facts, must be accepted and we shall see how, before any story of cooking begins, crime is inevitable. That is why cooking is not an entirely agreeable pastime. There is too much that must happen in advance of the actual cooking. This doesn’t of course apply to the food that emerges from the deep freeze. But the marketing and cooking I know are French and it was in France, where freezing units are unknown, that in due course I graduated at the stove.

In earlier days, memories of which are scattered among my chapters, if indulgent friends on this or that Sunday evening or party occasion said that the cooking I produced wasn’t bad, it neither beguiled nor flattered me into liking or wanting to do it. The only way to learn to cook is to cook, and for me, as for so many others, it suddenly and unexpectedly became a disagreeable necessity to have to do it when war came and Occupation followed. It was in those conditions of rationing and shortage that I learned not only to cook seriously but to buy food in a restricted market and not take too much time in doing it, since there were so many important and more amusing things to do. It was at this time, then, that murder in the kitchen began.

The first victim was a lively carp brought to the kitchen in a covered basket from which nothing could escape. The fish man who sold me the carp said he had no time to kill, scale or clean it, nor would he tell me with which of these horrible necessities one began. It wasn’t difficult to know which was the most repellent. So quickly to the murder and have it over with.

On the docks of Puget Sound I had seen fishermen grasp the tail of a huge salmon and lifting it high bring it down on the dock with enough force to kill it. Obviously I was not a fisherman nor was the kitchen table a dock. Should I not dispatch my first victim with a blow on the head from a heavy mallet? After an appraising glance at the lively fish it was evident he would escape attempts aimed at his head. A heavy sharp knife came to my mind as the classic, the perfect choice, so grasping, with my left hand well covered with a dishcloth, for the teeth might be sharp, the lower jaw of the carp, and the knife in my right, I carefully, deliberately found the base of its vertebral column and plunged the knife in.

I let go my grasp and looked to see what had happened. Horror of horrors. The carp was dead, assassinated, murdered in the first, second and third degree. Limp, I fell into a chair, with my hands still unwashed reached for a cigarette, lighted it, and waited for the police to come and take me into custody. After a second cigarette my courage returned and I went to prepare poor Mr Carp for the table. I scraped off the scales, cut off the fins, cut open the underside and emptied out a great deal of what I did not care to look at, thoroughly washed and dried the fish and put it aside while I prepared CARP STUFFED WITH CHESTNUTS…

It was in the market of Palma de Mallorca that our French cook tried to teach me murder by smothering. There was no reason why this crime should have been committed publicly or that I should have been expected to participate. Jeanne was just showing off. When the crows of market women who had gathered around her began screaming and gesticulating, I retreated. When we met later to drive back in the carry-all filled with our marketing to Terreno where we had a villa I refused to sympathize with Jeanne. She said the Mallorcans were bloodthirsty, didn’t they go to the bullfights and pay an advanced price for the meat of the beasts they had seen killed in the ring, didn’t they prefer to chop off the heads of innocent pigeons instead of humanely smothering them which was the way to prevent all fowl from bleeding to death and so make them fuller and tastier. Had she not tried to explain this to them, to teach them, to show them how an intelligent humane person went about killing pigeons, but no they didn’t want to learn, they preferred their own brutal ways. Discussing food which she enjoyed above everything had been discouraged at table. But her fine black eyes were eloquent. If the small-size pigeons the island produced had not achieved jumbo size, squabs they unquestionably were, and larger and more succulent squabs than those we had eaten at the excellent restaurant at Palma.

Later we went back to Paris and then there was war and after a time there was peace. One day passing the concierge’s loge he called me and said he had something someone had left for us. He said he would bring it to me, which he did and which I wished he hadn’t when I saw what it was, a crate of six white pigeons and a note from a friend saying she had nothing better to offer us from her home in the country, ending with But as Alice is clever she will make something delicious of them.

It is certainly a mistake to allow a reputation for cleverness to be born and spread by loving friends. It is so cheaply acquired and so dearly paid for. Six white pigeons to be smothered, to be plucked, to be cleaned and all this to be accomplished before Gertrude Stein returned for she didn’t like to see work being done. If only I had the courage the two hours before her return would easily suffice. A large cup of strong black coffee would help. This was before a lovely Brazilian told me that in her country a large cup of black coffee was always served before going to bed to ensure a good night’s rest. Not yet having acquired this knowledge the black coffee made me lively and courageous. I carefully found the spot on poor innocent Dove’s throat where I was to press and pressed. The realization had never come to me before that one saw with one’s fingertips as well as one’s eyes. It was a most unpleasant experience, though as I laid out one by one the sweet young corpses there was no denying one could become accustomed to murdering. So I plucked the pigeons, emptied them and was ready to cook BRAISED PIGEONS ON CROUTONS…

The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook; Harper & Row, 1954

Monday, August 29, 2011

Popular Writing and Postmodernism in the 50s by Tracy Daugherty

After World War II certain areas of Brooklyn, particularly Brownsville, remained largely unchanged, at least for a while, but the toughness of that neighborhood – the poverty, gangs, and anti-Semitism (despite large Orthodox Jewish populations) –developed a resilience of character in some people that drove them towards ‘betterment” in wealthy, optimistic postwar America. Their drive was beginning to alter popular culture.

Danny Kaye was a Brownsville product. He migrated to the Catskills, refined his showbiz chops in resort hotels, and took those talents to the new medium of television where people like Norman Barasch wrote for him. Mel Brooks, Zero Mostel, and Phil Silvers came from Brownsville. So did Jerry Lewis, Jerry Stiller, and Alfred Kazin.

In Brownsville, two teenaged friends, Eli Katz and Norman Podhoretz, drew a comic strip together called “Night Hawk”. As an adult, Katz changed his name to Gil Kane and created the comic book heroes the Atom and the Green Lantern. Podhoretz would edit Commentary and become a leading figure in the neoconservative political movement. “America’s junk culture can be found in superhero comic books, its high culture in magazines such as Commentary yet comics and intellectual journals were often created by remarkably similar people,” wrote Jeet Heer.

In the 1960s and 70s, the blurring of High and Low would characterize American art and entertainment – from the visual arts (Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg) to the movies (Mike Nichols, Frances Ford Coppola; from the comics (R. Crumb, Charles Schultz) to literature ( exhibit A: Catch-22 by Joseph Heller). Critics have attributed this development to many causes: the easy availability of paperbacks, tabloids, and television programming; technological advances (silk screening, photographic manipulation); advertising, with its hunger for co-opting original ideas to spur mass sales. But Heer is also right: Much of the energy behind this mixing of cultural products, aims, and ambitions came from the drive for integration by groups of people seizing opportunities formerly denied them.

Not surprisingly, individuals who held privileged social positions, and shaped their ideas of culture around them, fought change. On July 17, 1955 – shortly after a draft of the first chapter of what would become Catch-22 appeared in New World Writing - Disneyland opened in Anaheim, California. If “Catch-18” was part of the trend towards blurring, bringing with it new ideas of art, literature, and entertainment, Disneyland (in spite of its technical dazzle and television promotions) was part of a resistance to change, a wistful attempt at preserving “old” culture.

Originally, Disney, a son of the rural Midwest, had intended to call Disneyland “Walt Disney’s America.” His America was not Joe Heller’s. In fact, according to Raymond M. Weinstein, a scholar of modern culture, “Walt Disney had an intense dislike for Coney Island and what he thought it represented – dirty, disorganized…garish.” It wasn’t the amusement rides Disney objected to; his revulsion seemed tied to something deeper – perhaps the ethnic mix, the noisy clash of immigrant voices and styles?

“Disneyland was the embodiment of one man’s prepossession towards America’s most important beliefs, values, and symbol rooted in his boyhood experiences in the Midwest,” Weinstein wrote. In its cleanliness, logical organization (its perfection of park administration), and old-fashioned Main Street atmosphere, it would be the anti-Coney Island. “Disney understood well the mood of the 1950s – with its bomb threats, Cold War, domestic paranoia, foreign conflicts,” Weinstein said. “His brand of amusement played into everyone’s desire to go back to their childhood and the childhood of the nation.”

Well, not everyone’s – as the disruptive energy in the pages of The Green Lantern, Commentary, and New World Writing demonstrated. It is no exaggeration to say that in the pages of comic books, journals, and magazines, war was being waged for America’s soul. Superman had gone from fighting corporate greed to battling Nazis – now, in this era of atomic-bomb threats and rumors of UFOs, he fended off invaders from darkening skies. However ridiculous these scenarios seemed, they offered debates on threats to the nation.

Similar considerations filled Commentary and other journals. For example, as early as 1952, a prominent member of Commentary’s editorial staff, Irving Kristol, wrestled his conscience and broke with his fellow staffers’ liberal views. He wrote that Joe McCarthy was certainly a threat to the nation’s political integrity, but a bigger problem was the Left’s refusal to disavow communism. The Left’s dithering, he said, gave McCarthy ammunition. Kristol’s colleagues fired back, accusing him in print of McCarthyism. The battle for the nation’s soul – not to mention Commentary’s – intensified.

Meanwhile, inside Henry Luce’s empire, the arguments centered on corporate culture, corporate responsibilities. Fortune and Time, reflecting Luce’s belief that America must own the century, insisted corporate leaders had to do more than earn profits; they had to forge in America a “business civilization” in which financial values shaped everything from arts and entertainment to architecture to the nation’s infrastructure to the behavior of families. Capitalism had to have a ‘moral basis’.

What did this mean? Luce summed it up in practical terms: “I am biased in favor of God, Eisenhower, and the stockholders of Time Inc.” He promoted a certain image of American masculinity. Time and Life ran numerous articles on Billy Graham’s increasingly popular Christian crusades, describing Graham as lean, blond and handsome. Besides his physical attributes, a large part of what made Graham so attractive, said Luce, was the businesslike efficiency of his religious operation. When Graham went to New York City in the summer of 1957 for a series of rallies, he surrounded himself at news conferences with elite male business figures, including William Randolph Hearst, Jr., and Henry Luce. In Yankee Stadium, on July 20, Vice President Richard Nixon appeared at his rally. The stadium was an appropriate venue, not just for accommodating the crowd but also for stressing Graham’s athleticism and love of sports, part of his all-American image. Sports metaphors leavened his sermons. “Christianity is not a religion for weaklings,” he asserted. “We must be strong, virile, dynamic, if we are to stand.”

What role did women play in this mix of bodybuilding, business, and faith? “I never talk alone with a woman,” Graham told an interviewer. Fervently, he avoided “lovesick women and bobby-soxers”. The American soul demanded sexual vigilance; Henry Luce agreed.

Next to Time on the newsstands, competing views of masculinity waved their muscular pages, including the pulp version with postwar variations. “In wartime the Armed Services taught soldiers how to fight enemies, but back home, working-class soldiers depended upon the mass-market magazines for their civilian life-lessons,” wrote Adam Parfrey, editor of It’s a Man’s World: Men’s Adventure Magazines, the Post-War Pulps. “All of them had, among the lures of woman flesh and vicious bad guys, a lot of warnings, how-to’s, and comforting memories of wartime, when decisions were black and white, the villains darker and the victories sweeter.”

Bruce Jay Friedman went to work for Martin Goodman’s Magazine Management Company in 1954, after a stint in Korea. Racism, misogyny, and imperialism were ‘just the way things were” in titles such as Male, Stag, and True Action – known in the trade as “armpit” publications, he said, “We didn’t think twice about it”: this was blue-collar manhood.

Friedman hired a young writer named Mario Puzo who created giant mythical armies, lock them in combat in Central Europe, and have casualties coming in by the hundreds of thousands. Other regular features in men’s magazines included “Animal Nibbler” stories about people who had been nibbled half to death by ferocious little animals. “Sintown” stories were always a hit with readers. “I always though of them as ‘scratch the surface’ yarns,” Friedman said. “(Outwardly, Winkleton, Illinois, is a quiet, tree-lined little community…But scratch the surface of this supposedly God-fearing little town and you will find that not since Sodom and Gomorrah and blah blah blah) Any town with a bar and a hooker would do.”

Even here, amid the puerility, soul struggles elvolved. As Cold War dustups frayed the country’s nerves, and cracks began to appear in suburbia’s blissful pavement, previously suppressed fantasies crept into men’s magazines. They took the form of “Leg Shackler” stories: “Slaves of the Emperor of Agony,” “Savage Rites of the Whip,” “Tormented Love.” As Parfrey noted, “Damsels had been distressed since the turn of the century in pulps, but nearly always the illustrations suggested that a hero was nearby, and his rescue pending.” More and more, “heroes came to play and increasingly minor role in illustrations until they were completely phased out.” Apparently, readers of these magazines came to believe that “saving women from torture was no longer on any level heroic.” This growing trend would reach its peak in the mid – 1960s, Parfrey said, at ‘the time of the Vietnam War’s escalation and the emergence of feminism.”

Skirmishes over manhood, politics, or corporate behavior might have been restricted to small pockets of readers here and there, given the specialized nature of magazines. But the tensions escaped their stapled spines. The term culture war would not achieve currency until decades later, but a culture war this was.

In 1954, Dr. Fredric Wertham published a book called Seduction of the Innocent, in which he claimed comic books and men’s magazines were spreading the epidemic of juvenile delinquency and homosexuality among the nation’s youth. His supporters boycotted newsstands and burned comic books. Writing in Commentary, Norbert Muhlen cursed the “dehumanized” and “repetitious” stories of ‘death and destruction” in comic, which were helping to educate a whole generation for an authoritarian rather than a democratic society.” With little change, his words could have served a leg-shackling Nazi, but the U.S. Congress became concerned enough (or alert enough to an issue worth exploiting politically – it was easier to face this than Joe McCarthy) to threaten government censorship of comics. In response, William Gaines, publisher of Educational Comics, and his business manager, Lyle Stuart, created the Comics Magazines Association of America, a self-regulatory agency set up to administer a code – a stamp of approval guaranteeing ‘wholesome, entertaining and educational” contents. Any title that didn’t comply would face distribution hurdles. This move was meant to stave off harsher regulations by the government.

Gaines’s company published Tales from the Crypt, Weird Fantasy, The Vault of Horror, and a relatively new title (from October 1952) written and edited by a man named Harvey Kurtzman: Tales Calculated to Drive you MAD: Humor in a Jugular Vein.

“Of course, we had the big problem: could we ever live under the censorship of the Comics Code?” Kurtzman said. “We decided, absolutely no. We could not go on as a comic book.” Thus, Mad was born. Technically, by shifting from hand lettering to set type, the publication became a magazine instead of a comic book. It was not bound by the strict new code.

Restrictions on magazine content were lighter (not to say ambiguous and paradoxical). “Boys were allowed to purchase men’s magazines that promoted wholesale violence against an entire gender, while Playboy-style girlie mags that revered women and their bodies were considered unfit material for underage readers,” Adam Parfrey wrote.

In many ways Mad represented a group of alternative New York intellectuals,” says critic David Abrams. “Many of Mad’s staff were Jewish, either native New Yorkers or emigres from Europe, a high proportion of them survivors of Nazi Germany. Like the New York intellectual milieu, many of them had come to political awareness during the Depression.”

Yiddish phrases stippled the magazine’s pages. By 1967, theologian Vernard Eller could say, “Beneath the pile of garbage that is Mad, there beats, I suspect, the heart of of rabbi.” Abrams contends that “Mad’s critique of America was far more effective and devastating than its better-known counterparts… such as Commentary, Dissent, Partisan Review, and The New Leader. This was so, he says, because the intellectual journals were constrained by their sponsoring organizations (in Commentary’s case, the powerful American Jewish Committee) or editors’ ideologies. “We like to say that Mad has no politics and that we take no point of view,” Gaines once said, but ‘the magazine is more liberal than not liberal.”

Abrams may overstate Mad’s intellectual rigor, but he is right to call attention to its growing influence during the 1950s and 1960s. Its highly visible political satire, scored to Borscht Belt rhythms eased the way for Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce,and Joseph Heller, or helped then gain greater acceptance. Politics and punning, smarts and snappy play – the High and the Low – had embraced.

Mad carried no advertising (ironic, given the location of its offices on Madison Avenue). Among its favorite targets for satire were ad agencies – “the essence of Mad’s success is its nim,ble spoofing of promotions of all kinds,” Time noted in 1958. The Disney Corporation came under fire (Mickey Mouse as a rat-faced thug). Joseph McCarthy didn’t escape: “Is Your Bathroom Breeding Bolsheviks?” asked one of the magazine’s fake ads.

Predictably, Mad spawned a backlash from the intellectual set. In The New Yorker, Dwight Macdonald wrote, “Mad expresses…teenagers cynicism about the world of mass media that their elders have created – so full of hypocrisy and pretense governed by formulas. But Mad itself has a formula. It speaks the same language, aesthetically and morally, as the media it satirizes; it is as tasteless as they are, and more violent”. Mad’s critiques took the form of their targets. Indecipherability, relativism, what critics would soon call “postmodernism” had crept into mass culture. What could Superman – or Lionel Trilling – do about that?

The truth is, the mixture of High and Low had already made enough mud to cause a landslide. In 1955, William Gaddis published an immense novel called The Recognitions, all about plagiarism, forgeries, and counterfeiting, themes that made it “the novel of the fifties”, in Frederick Karl’s estimation. As in the national discourse, disseminated through popular media, “layers of untruth” comprised the novel; beneath the lies, “somewhere lay the real.” “Cold war, pinkos, left-winger, Red China, McCarthyism, Hiss, Rosenbergs, liberal intellectual, egghead…labels became a kind of totem; we demeaned every experience and every response by means of a reductive vocabulary which transmitted only the artificial.” In capturing this glutted, mediated atmosphere, The Recognitions became “our archetypal experience for the fifties, a model…for the way in which we saw and will continue to see ourselves.”

[ ]

Meanwhile, in 1952, Bobbs- Merrill brought out George Mandel’s Flee The Angry Strangers in hardcover, followed the next year by a Bantam mass-market paperback edition featuring a Harry Schaare cover, like that of a comic book: a woman shooting heroin). In time, critics saw Flee The Angry Stranger as a proto-Beat novel, capturing, before Kerouac, Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, Burroughs, and others, what Thomas Newhouse called the cultural “transition between the wail of hopelessness after the war” and a freedom to choose dissolution” rather than middle-class life.

Mandel’s protagonist, eighteen-year-old Diane Lattimer, a drug-hazed habitué of the jazz clubs on Bleecker and MacDougal streets, hustles by day and, despite her self-destructiveness, a rare feminist heroine in the fiction of the time. Mandel’s comic-book training showed in the larger-than-life appetites of his characters, in their heroic embrace of instantaneous pleasure ( a kind of personalized justice for all) and their rejection of society’s straight-and-narrow paths. These qualities would characterize all of Beat writing; The Beats’ link to the comic-book ethos of the time – through figures like George Mandel – is not accidental.

Flee The Angry Strangers uncovered many crosscurrents swirling through American popular writing in the early 1950s – for just as Mickey Spillane smuggled comic-book action into the hard-boiled detective genre, the values of proletarian fiction stiffened comic heroes spines. Mandel’s characters encompassed each of these strains; they were amalgams of the Human Torch, Mike Hammer, and Nelson Algren’s Frankie Machine. Mandel’s people spoke ‘jive’: jazz talk. They didn’t provide their partners with sexual delight; they sent them. They didn’t smoke marijuana; they indulged in pod, a term that degrade into pot after many “engorged mispronunciations by its consumers,” Mandel sad. The novel’s language was so strange, his publishers ask him to include a lexicon in the back of the book. Later, he regretted he didn’t accede to this request, because soon, “Madison Avenue” began to “spoil the “flavor” of jive’s “perceptive music.”

The ethos and combination of Mandel’s characters sowed the path for the Beats and underground hip soon became a rich source for mainstream advertising.

Just One Catch; A Biography of Joseph Heller by Tracy Daugherty’; St. Martin’s Press, 2011